Thursday, 25 September 2008

Enchantment - in nature

The Green Man and the Magic Thorn
This Green Man can be found in church at Sutton Benger in Wiltshire. It has hawthorn issuing from its mouth with birds eating the berries. The hawthorn is the most magical of all trees (see previous post) Image taken from Mike Harding's A Little Book Of The Green Man. Mike Harding, although better known to most people as a comedian and musician, has done some thorough research into the Green Man who 'crops' up in churches and cathedrals. Believed to be a pagan interpretation of John Barleycorn - who dances before the May Queen as a symbol of the Corn Spirit that must 'die' and be 'reborn'. Mike Harding has his own website where more information can be found
The Green Man is also known as Jack-in-the Green, Green Jack, and Green George. I am only touching on the subject here and I will no doubt come back to it when I have done more research and have seen some examples of the Green Man for myself.
In tree mythology a dryad is a wood nymph that inhabits a tree. This tree was spotted at Avebury - not a hawthorn but with a hawthorn growing next to it.

Toadstools and mushrooms
Toadstools are sometimes known 'Fairy tables or chairs'. This picture was taken was taken earlier this summer in the ancient woodland of Highgate Woods in north London. Amazingly, this precious place survives and thrives in one of the biggest cities in the world. Highgate Wood appears in an earlier post back in July - although I no longer live near to it, it remains a place very dear to my heart. When I left London a few years ago the one thing I was truly homesick for was Highgate Wood - happily though I still get to visit it.

Wild mushrooms often grow in 'fairy rings' often up to thirty feet in diameter - in folklore these are said to be entrances to the underworld.
The Fairy Stone - Wiltshire

This sarsen stone is on a field boundary somewhere in north Wiltshire. I was shown this stone by a friend the just the other day - why it is called the Fairy Stone we do not know and will probably never know. Country people are very reluctant to talk about enchantment but that doesn't mean they do not believe in its spell and true country dwellers are often very superstitious. The stone was the inspiration for this particular post - which I publish with some reservations. I am intrigued by folk tales and 'fairy' tales, some of them quite dark. However, I am well aware that in writing about them, I am probably going be described by some of the more cynical readers who may stubble on my blog whilst wandering the web, as being 'away with the fairies'. Should I continue I ask myself, will my credibility as an observer of nature and its 'hidden magic' be questioned. Probably!
Does it matter? Of course not - these are just my own musings and meditations. As the years pass with ever increasing speed I think there is time to revisit the magic of childhood - to have a look around and then come back again into the real world. In these troubled times we all need a little enchantment - and it is all around us. We only have to use our imagination and look with a the clear gaze of a child.

A traditional impression of faery folk Victorian style - Titania
by Arthur Rackham

Winged Words
The winged words, they pass
Still everywhere,
Seeds of the spirit-grass
The dream-winds bear
From that heart-field to this,
Where thought as feeling is;
There's not a seed will miss
Life, once sown there.
They pass, the faery words,
In shade and shine,
As they were magic birds
This heart of mine
Gave shape and colour to,
As in the light and dew
The primal creatures grew
From germs divine.
Robert Crawford (1868 - 1930)

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Scarlet berries - the mystical hawthorn

Hawthorn berries
Illustration taken from 'Wayside and Woodland Trees'
(by Edward Step FLS)

The hawthorn belongs to May and its blossom is named after that month. However I cannot let the autumn slip past without commenting of the fruit of the hawthorn - the prolific, shiny, deep red berries. The hawthorn can survive from between one and three centuries and is common throughout the countryside, also planted to form dense and sturdy hedges - in fact the name 'hawthorn' comes from the Anglo-Saxon haegthorn meaning hedge thorn. Also known as the whitethorn, maythorn, or quickthorn the hawthorn's berries are loved by birds such as fieldfares and hawfinches, and can be made into tasty jelly or country wine.

The hawthorn is regarded with respect by country people and folk-lore associates it with faeries and the entrance to their world. It was (and still is) considered unlucky to chop a hawthorn down or to bring cuttings from it into the house.
The hawthorn is associated with the feminine and fertility rights. In Greek mythology, hawthorn lighted the alter temples of Hymen the god of marriage and the flowers were used as bridal wreaths.
It is also associated with the Roman cult of Cardea, the goddess of health, thresholds and door hinges which was celebrated at Beltane (the hinge of the year) as it is still celebrated by many today: see
In fairness, I must not forget to mention the hawthorn in Christianity where it is considered a holy tree associated with the Virgin Mary and the legend of the Glastonbury Thorn. The story goes that Joseph of Arimathea came to England to preach the Gospel and, having landed at the sacred Isle of Avalon (now Glastonbury) he thrust his staff into the ground. When he awoke it had changed into a tree covered in snowy white blossom - where he later built a chapel (which evolved into the great Glastonbury Abbey.)
Astrologically hawthorn is assigned to Mars and bears the sentiment of contentment. It is symbolic of fertility, marriage, hope, self-denial and spring.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

The Wayfaring Tree

Viburnum Lantana
Image taken from Wayside and Woodland Trees by Edward Step F.L.S (first published 1940, revised and reprinted 1957).

I came across the Wayfaring tree when I was doing some research on the Elder Tree; at first I thought they were the same tree as I hadn't encountered the Wayfaring tree in any of my more modern tree books. The author of Wayside and Woodland Trees says that this name is comparatively recent and the original name for this tree is lost in the mists of time. He quotes John Gerarde, whose 'Herbal' was published in 1597, noting its fondness for for roadside hedges and thickets called it Wayfaring tree or Wayfaringman's tree.
William Howitt (1792 - 1879) wrote the following lines:
Wayfaring Tree, what ancient claim
Hast thou to that right pleasant name?
Was it that some faint pilgrim came
Unhopedly to thee
In the brown desert's weary way
'Mid toil and thirst's consuming sway,
And there, as 'neath thy shade he lay,
Bless'd the Wayfaring Tree.

A rather quaint little poem, it captures the idea that the tree gave shelter from sun and rain the the weary traveller of days gone by.

The leaves and kernels have been used beneficially by herbalists and the foliage apparently used to dye hair black.

Friday, 19 September 2008

The Elder Tree

Elderberries and wild apples
The elder tree has become a hedgerow tree for which I have developed a great affection. It has much folk lore and some superstition attached to being the 13th tree of the Ogham calendar and is associated with the ending of the old year - a reminder that with each ending there is a new beginning.

There is much written about the elder tree - on a purely herbal level its flowers and fruit are most beneficial and are used to this day to make cordial and wine. 'She' is also called the Elder Mother or the wise woman aspect of the Triple Goddess see an article written by Glennie Kindred about the wise, prolific, hedgerow elder. Glennie explains that some of the 'bad press' the elder has had (ie its association with death) is born out of fear and superstition of the 'old ways' and the village hedgewitch - changing the old belief that the elder protected against evil to one that the elder was associated with death and malevolence.

The picture above was taken at a hedgerow out in the Wiltshire countryside on a beautiful clear day just before Equinox - the elder never looked more lovely. However, it also grows on little scraps of scubland and along cycletracks - where brambles have been cleared and cut back the elder remains, inconspicuous to anyone who is not looking for it. The elder gives protection and blessing to those who approach 'her' with respect and an open mind.

Thursday, 18 September 2008

An Answer

An Answer
Come, let us go down into the lane, love mine,
And mark and gather what the Autumn grows:
The creamy elder mellowed into wine,
The russet hip that was the pink-white rose;
The amber woodbine into rubies turned,
The blackberry that was the bramble born;
Nor let the seeded clematis be spurned,
Nor pearls, that now are corals of the thorn,
Look! what a lovely posy we have made
From the wild garden of the waning year.
So when, dear love, your summer has decayed,
Beauty more touching than is clustered here
Will linger in your life, and I shall cling
Closely as now, nor ask if it be Spring.
Alfred Austin (1835 - 1913)

Morgan's Hill and Calstone Coombes

'She did not turn' a magical painting by David Inshaw which was reproduced in the little booklet of four North Wessex walks published by the Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Society and was the inspiration for my walk today. I am indebted to my friend Hilary for driving us up to the start of our walk at the Smallgrain plantation picnic site.

Morgan's Hill is famous for its many varieties of wild orchids. The notice illustrates the Early Purple Spotted Orchid, Marsh Helleborine, Pyramidal Orchid, Frog Orchid and Twayblade. It also says that the late summer the slopes are covered in a haze of purple devils'-bit scabious and today we saw them plus many other late summer wild meadow flowers.
Calstone Coombes - our path took us through the folds of the coombes, generally considered to be medieval cultivation terraces or strip lynchets along the valley sides. A magical and dramatic landscape.

Sheep watching our progress along the valley of Calstone Coombes

Sunday, 14 September 2008

The Song of Amergin - for Samuel

Samuel has been an important name in my life. I have a little grandson called Samuel who will be two next weekend. I have a daft old tabby called Sammy, inherited from my niece when her life circumstances changed. And I had a wonderful father called Samuel whose birthday would have been today, 14th September. Today is not a sad occasion but one to celebrate his life - a day of yellow roses placed beside his picture. I read these lines of poetry at his funeral in the year 2000 and had first came across them in a collection of The Nation's Favourite Poems where it was chosen as 'the first past the post, poll position' - Do not stand at my grave and weep.

Do not stand at my grave and weep;
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning's hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there. I did not die.
The origins of the poem remain a mystery but I am always struck by its similarities with the ancient Song of Amergin.

There are many versions of this text - I am using the one from Robert Graves' 'White Goddess'. He suggests that the thirteen statements contain hidden significance and correspond with the thirteen Ogham Months of the Year (in the pre-Christian calendar). The words 'I am' and 'I have been' occur frequently in ancient Irish and Welsh poetry and denote a pantheistic conception of the Universe where godhead is everywhere and omnipotent.

I am the stag of seven tines
I am the wide flood on the plain
I am the wind on deep waters
I am the shining tear of the sun
I am a hawk on the cliff
I am fair among flowers
I am a god who sets the head afire with smoke
I am a battle-waging spear
I am a salmon in the pool
I am the hill of poetry
I am a ruthless boar
I am a threatening noise
I am a wave of the sea
Who but I knows the secrets of the unhewn dolmen?

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

A bean field on a blustery day

The sight of Silbury in the distance shining out like a beacon in the distance as I made my way through the long wet grass and thistles along the edge of the bean field. Mysterious Silbury (archaeologists cannot reveal its secrets) viewed from the distance of the Windmill Hill approaches, has the appearance of being the vibrant heart of the landscape.

Windswept September poppies growing in the bean field.

A field of blackened beans going towards Windmill Hill from Winterbourne Monkton - something a bit eerie about the it, spoilt by the weeks of continual rain I wonder. I made my way around the edge of the field towards Windmill Hill following the tracks of some small animal, probably a hare as came across a form (resting place) further along. I could hear the squeaking of field mice as I walked.
I ended up having to climb over a barbed wire fence when I reached the far corner of the field which was a bit tricky but as the saying goes where there is will there's a way.

The Winterbourne at Winterbourne Monkton (it may be a tributary called the Sambourne) my first visit to the village so my geography might need to be revised. I paid a visit to the peaceful little church which is open to visitors and got to touch and see for myself the famous Norman font with its fertility goddess engravings see;- post on Winterbourne Monkton church.

A hedgerow Oak against the bright windswept sky - everything was fresh and glistening as I walked across the meadow at the back of the village in search of a footpath - I could hear the sound grasshoppers (or perhaps crickets). A pair of buzzards circled above, calling as they hovered.

Saturday, 6 September 2008

Common Joys

Moss and lichen on an old garden wall
Common Joys
See how those diamonds splutter and choke -
What greedy things they are for light!
That pearl, whose pulse less wildly beats,
Is far more restful to my sight.
Soon tired of all those glittering toys,
With my delight and wonder gone -
I send my thoughts, like butterflies
To dream on some old spotted stone.
So, when the Skylark sings no more,
And I have seen the graceful Swallow;
When I have heard the Blackbird too,
And many a bird in field and furrow:
Then to my Sparrow I return,
Who scolds me well for what he misses -
And thinks a common chirp at times
Pays all his debts, like children's kisses.
(W H Davies)

William Henry Davies was born in 1871 in Newport, Wales. He lived much of his younger life as an itinerant in America, later returning to England to spend many years as a tramp. He wrote the Autobiography of a Super-Tramp in 1925. Later in life he married a young woman thirty years his junior who he met while she was working as a prostitute in London - he wrote about his life at that time in Young Emma. They lived contentedly together until he died at the age of 69 in 1940.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Sweet Hope

My little granddaughter was born six weeks ago and when my son and his partner told me they had named her Hope I was at first a little puzzled. However, it very quickly became just the right name for her especially as the word hope sums up a lot of factors surrounding her birth (which I won't go into here).
Hope is so much part of our everyday vocabulary that we use it without thinking: I hope the sun shines; I hope you are well; I hope you have a good day - and so on and so forth.
Barbara Walker makes an entry in her classic book The Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets under Saint Hope:
According to Hesiod's fable of Pandora's Vase (or, as it was later erroneously called, Pandora's Box), the spirit called Hope stood for the refined cruelty of Father Zeus towards helpless mortals. Zeus sent a vase full of spites to plague humanity with vice, madness, sickness, hard labour, war, famine, and every other ill; he also enclosed Hope, whose function was to prevent men from killing themselves in despair, to escape the miseries Zeus decreed for them.
Hope was thus presented as a spirit of delusion, her ultimate purpose was to make men suffer. In Christian scriptures however, she was combined with Faith and Charity (or Love) as one of the essential virtues. Some excessively naive hagiographers even canonised these three virtues as three fictitious virgin martyrs, all daughters of the equally fictitious Saint Sophia. Saint Hope is still listed in the Roman canon of saints even though scholars have shown she never existed.

Some Poems about Hope:

Hope is the thing with feathers (by Emily Dickinson)
"Hope" is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings a tune without the words
And never stops at all

And sweetest in the gale is heard
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm

I've heard it in the chillest land
And on the strangest sea,
Yet never, in extremity
It asked a crumb of me.

When Hope but made Tranquility (fragment by Samuel Coleridge)
When Hope but made tranquility be felt -
A Flight of Hopes for ever on the wing
But made Tranquility a conscious Thing -
And wheeling round and round in sportive coil
Fann'd the calm air upon the brow of Toil -

The last verse of To Hope (by John Keats)
And as, in sparkling majesty, a star
Gilds the bright summit of some gloomy cloud.
Brightening the half veil'd face of heaven afar
So, when dark thoughts of boding spirit shroud,
Sweet Hope, celestial influence round me shed,
Waving thy silver pinions o'er my head.

The final word (for now) on Hope, I will leave to Samuel Johnson:

The natural flights of the human mind are not from pleasure to pleasure but from hope to hope.